Mullin's Walton Hawaii bike ride story shows joy late legend exuded

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Planet Earth was Bill Walton’s to roam and oh did he explore, his walk guided not by a compass but by his conscience. When walking was too painful or restrictive, he would gleefully prop his 6-foot-11, 230-pound frame aboard his bicycle in search of sights he’d yet to see and friends he’d yet to meet. He might ride alone. Even better if there was company.

Which was the case on Thanksgiving Day 2015, when Bill – he urged everyone to call him “Bill” – was joined in Hawaii by his friend and fellow Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Chris Mullin.

Mullin, coaching at St. John’s University at the time, was in Hawaii for the annual Maui Invitational basketball tournament. Bill, assigned as the color commentator on some of the games, invited Mullin for a bike ride on the island. They had ridden a few times before, in the Bay Area. Mullin, unaware of the challenge to come, accepted.

Bill had a buddy at a local bike shop because, well, he had buddies everywhere he had been. This buddy set up Mullin with a bike and the necessary equipment. He was ready when he met Bill on Thanksgiving morning. They hopped on their bikes and blazed a trail around the lush scenery.

“We went out for seven hours, man – seven hours,” Mullin recalled Tuesday. “We went everywhere. He knew exactly where he was going. We took the highway out, we went up in the mountains, we went down by the ocean.

“I had gotten up and grabbed a coffee before we went out. We ate some trail mix along the way, and that was all we had. I didn’t know how long we’d be gone, but we’re out there and I’m like, ‘I’m just following you, big fella.’ But on our way back, my quads started cramping and I’m starving and I’m starting to lose it.

“We pull into this nice, gated community that’s on the beach. I’m following Bill. There are all these beautiful homes by the ocean. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and there’s a family on the front lawn. They recognize Bill and then they recognize me. So, we stop and start talking with them.”

After passing along Thanksgiving greetings and further pleasantries, Bill asked his buddies if they had carved the turkey. They had not.

“Bill says, ‘Well, why don’t we carve the turkey because my partner here is starving,’ ” Mullin said. “And sure enough, the guy went inside and came out with a plate with turkey and everything else. We chowed down and then went on our way.

“It was days like that with Bill. That day, it was just me and him all day. Looking back, I was so glad I did it, too. We were there for the tournament, but this was our off day. To spend that day with him like that is special.”

(Photo courtesy Chris Mullin)

Bill died on Memorial Day, surrounded by family, at age 71. Cancer, ever relentless and remorseless, had extinguished one of the brightest lights in the history of humankind.

What’s left are memories that will keep Bill’s buddies, and there must be millions, smiling and laughing and occasionally crying for the rest of their lives. They’ll relive moments because nearly all of them were warm. For all his wondrous basketball skill – he was, when healthy, the Nikola Jokic of his era – exuding personal warmth was Bill’s greatest gift.

“He was a legend,” Mullin said. “We talk about Larry Bird, but Bill was Larry Bird’s idol. A legendary figure in the basketball world.

“But he transcended that with his humility. He was warm and kind and always welcoming people. That’s who he was. Bill always was thinking of how he could help other people, whether it was in the biggest way or the smallest way.”

Mullin’s relationship with Bill dates to their playing days. Mullin’s rookie season, 1985-86, was Bill’s last full season with the Boston Celtics. Injuries limited Bill to 10 games the following season, and he was sidelined for the entire 1987-88 season before retiring that summer.

(Photo courtesy Chris Mullin)

Retirement gave Bill more time to devote to causes camped out inside his heart. Family. Political issues. Social justice. Equality. Legalizing marijuana. Grateful Dead concerts. And, of course, adding to his collection of “buddies” around the globe.

When former Warriors Sarunas Marciulionis was trying to help fund Lithuania’s basketball squad for the 1992, Bill pitched in, offering to gather tie-dye T-shirts – always plentiful at Grateful Dead shows – to assist in the effort.

“He says, “Maybe we can sell some tie-dye T-shirts and raise some money,’ ” Mullin recalled. “Not only did they raise money, but they also basically funded the whole Olympic team. (Team Lithuania) wore the T-shirts on the medal stand.

“To be like that, all the time, is why so many people have these great memories of Bill. Everyone is going to miss him because he was so genuine.”

(Photo courtesy Chris Mullin)

Each time I encountered Bill, the lyrics of John Lennon’s profound and plaintive classic “Imagine” would rush into my mind and stay there for the rest of the day.

Because Bill seemed to live the wonderful world of which Lennon visualized. A place in which conflict and class/culture struggle are replaced by global peace and unconditional love and pure humanity. A place without borders or greed.

One planet, one community.

"Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one."

Nothing stopped Bill from living a joyous life to the absolute fullest. Not dozens of surgeries. Not being arrested for participating in an anti-war protest. Not the limitations we as humans sometimes impose upon ourselves.

Bill Walton was the best of us. If we all could have lived in his world, this place would be immeasurably better for it.

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